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Isaiah 40a – Echoes in the Psalms

One of the joys of reading Scripture is to hear the words of other biblical writers echoing throughout the whole Bible.  When reading Isaiah 40:6-8, you may have been reminded of the words of Moses.  A long time ago, Moses not only penned the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch), but he also wrote a psalm, reflecting on the brevity of life and our hope in the eternality and reliability of God.

Let’s start with Isaiah’s words.  He writes: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:6-8 ESV).

As we heard in today’s sermon, Isaiah contrasts the temporal nature of humanity with the durability and reliability of God and His Word.  He compares humans to grass and flowers.  Grass withers, flowers fade from the simple breath of the Lord.  By attributing the withering and fading to God’s breath (which can also be translated “spirit” or “Spirit”), Isaiah emphasizes the sovereignty of God.

Moses does something similar with his metaphors in Psalm 90.  He writes: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’  For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.  You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:  in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Psa 90:3-6 ESV).

Notice some of the similarities between these two texts.  Moses also compares humanity with grass—renewed in the morning, “withering” in the evening (same verb).  Certainly the emphasis here is the temporal nature of grass and man.  And once more in the psalm, Moses attributes the withering to God—“You return man to dust… You sweep them away…”

Later on in the psalm, Moses says to God, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.  Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!  Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psa 90:12-14 ESV).

There are more links here with Isa 40.  For Moses, the takeaway from considering the brevity of life is to “number our days” in order to “get a heart of wisdom.”  Certainly this COVID-19 crisis has caused us to consider our days as well!

But notice how Moses begs God’s return in verse 13.  “Return, O LORD!  How long?” he cries out.  Isaiah fulfills Moses’s question by affirming the Lord’s return (40:3-5, 9-11).  Moses asks to be satisfied with God’s “steadfast love,” which translates the Hebrew word hesed.  Isaiah shows that humanity cannot be trusted to have reliable hesed (40:6 – translated “beauty” in ESV).

So we see a number of lexical and thematic links between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 90.  Moses certainly wrote much earlier than Isaiah, so Isaiah likely borrowed from Moses, not the other way around.  Both of these texts can be read in concert with each other and in many ways Isaiah’s text fulfills and finalizes the pleading hope found in Moses’s psalm by pointing to the certainty of God’s powerful and compassionate return.

But what these texts share is a recognition of the frailty of humanity and the reliability of God.  We are called to place our hope in the Lord and in the meantime serve God as we are able.

Let not this virus persuade you to lose your focus on God’s glory.  Behold your God!

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